Mississippi school district officials apologize after graduation called ‘worst experience’ for families denied access to ceremony

Published 5:08 am Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Officials in one Mississippi school district were on the defensive Monday answering questions and apologizing to students and parents after people were barred from attending graduation ceremonies Friday.

Graduation was ruined for some Natchez High School and Natchez Early College families on Friday when they were told they couldn’t watch their students graduate because the Natchez High School gymnasium had already reached capacity.

Claud Gross said he and his wife were among “100 or so people” who were locked out and were not able to watch their daughter Stella Rose Marie Latham-Gross graduate.

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“I stood in a long line waiting to get in, people were going in ahead of us and I got all the way to the second set of doors,” he said. “There was a woman ahead of me. They pushed her back out the door and locked it. Then an officer cracked the door open and said if we don’t move back away from the doors we will get arrested for trespassing.”

Gross said around 20 more officers came from both directions and moved the crowd.

“It was the worst experience of our life,” he said. “Mothers were crying. Dads were mad. We’ve heard nothing from the school. No apology, nothing.”

There were apologies from the school shared on social media. Superintendent Zandra McDonald Green acknowledged Monday that a simple apology wouldn’t be enough.

“We realize that no matter what apology we give, that won’t reclaim that memory that was taken from those parents and families,” she said.

Despite efforts to ensure an equitable admission process to the graduation, Green said some people “had in their minds that they were going to circumvent the process. That is where the issues came in. We deeply regret and apologize for that.”

According to school officials, the commencement exercise had been planned to take place outside at the Tom F. Williams Memorial Stadium. However, because of the weather, the graduation was moved indoors.

Each student was allowed eight tickets to the live graduation and two tickets to watch the live stream from the NHS cafeteria. This is four more tickets per student than would have been issued if the graduation were held inside the Natchez Convention Center, school officials said.

On Friday morning, school officials learned someone had made copies of graduation tickets and distributed them. School officials had to quickly adjust the admission process when they realized that more tickets existed than were issued.

The graduates had to sign in to their school email and complete a list of whom they wanted at their graduation.

However, people were still turned away on Friday night when someone from the public opened a “side door” and let people skip the sign-in point and enter the building.

“We were at capacity and we just could not allow more people to enter,” Green said. She added there were 1,850 people watching inside the gym and that the district had made accommodations for another 300 people in the cafeteria for the live stream.

The school shared in a social media post, “Again, we sincerely apologize for any inconvenience. The live stream video has been archived and is still available for viewing. We want to always do what’s best for students, and again we apologize. We are already brainstorming ideas to circumvent any incidents like this in the future.”

Gross said they waited an hour or more to see if anyone would come out so they could go in, but that never happened. Their family wound up going home and his daughter was crying, upset “because nobody was there to cheer for her,” he said.

Gross said Monday morning that his wife and daughter are still upset at being robbed of this “once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

“We got nothing. We ended up going home and our daughter came out crying with her diploma,” he said. “They printed and gave out tickets. … After that, we get a notice that the tickets were duplicated by somebody, so we had to put names on the email list because we would have to check in at the door. We never even got that far. It was the most insane thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Green said “Our team is working now to make sure that we don’t have this situation again. We deeply regret that there were parents who were unable to get in.  There were factors we have to address and really work to ensure that a better process is in place for next year.”

For those who were unable to watch the graduation, click here to view a video of the ceremony.